With The Company Men, writer/director John Wells tells a Great Recession story. His impressive performers are strong conduits for the disgrace businessmen sometimes face, yet the movie is crippled by its earnestness. It’s as if Wells first and foremost strives for accuracy and decided drama is ancillary. Peppered with fleeting moments of tension and tragedy, Wells clearly feels for recently-maligned businessmen and their families. Naturally, there is a message amidst his story, which takes a sharp look at the aftermath of America’s amoral capitalism. Wells stops short of a call to action, which is just as well since his slow-burn screenplay squanders the potential for palpable outrage.
The bigwigs just downsized Bobby (Ben Affleck), one of their top salesmen. Hurtful profanity is his immediate reaction. He chews out Sally (Maria Bello), the functionary who fired him, and looks for his mentor Gene (Tommy Lee Jones), who took the corporate jet to lead a tedious shareholder’s meeting. Bobby’s wife Maggie (Rosemarie DeWitt) immediately suggests the family should cut back, but Bobby’s in denial. Soon he finds himself in a placement service, a dreary quasi-workplace where other unemployed workers send out résumés with increased resignation. In the next-round of layoffs, the company fires longtime employee Phil (Chris Cooper), a guy whose age is his biggest hindrance. Gradually the screenplay diverges to tell two stories. The first is about guys like Bobby and Phil, men who must face indignity and private shame. The second is about the company itself, and how a pitiless CEO (Craig T. Nelson) lets the profit motive justify even the most unethical behavior.
Wells, who has an extensive television background, has a traditional approach behind the camera and on the page. His dialog is deliberately recognizable; despite the Massachusetts accents, there are multiple scenes and lines that strike familiar chord. Moreover, I’m sure everyone has a friend/family member in a situation similar to Bobby and his former colleagues. An introspective movie is not necessarily a bad thing, but Wells’ uncompromising approach leaves little room for sympathy. The actors don’t hold back, either. As Bobby, Affleck is effective as a flawed, driven jerk-who-makes-good. At the same time, Tommy Lee Jones turns understatement into high art, and has no problem portraying a quietly bitter company executive. Kevin Costner has a small but crucial role as Jack, Bobby’s blue-collar brother-in-law. In a movie brimming with upper-middle-class entitlement, Jack’s reality is harshly realistic. It is easy to overlook Craig T. Nelson, yet he brilliantly plays a CEO who genuinely believes he’s always doing the right thing. The conclusion Wells reaches, that CEOs must personify the unethical world in which they live, is all the more alarming because of Nelson’s performance.
The opening credits of The Company Men set precise expectations of what’s to follow. With help from Roger Deakins reliably brilliant cinematography, Wells’ camera documents symbols of American wealth: the house, the Porsche, the driving range. As the story of Bobby and others gets told, we see these objects not as status symbols but as true luxuries; that is, they’re wholly unnecessary when times get tough. If it sounds as if I’m making an obvious point, it’s because Wells’ argument is similarly on the nose. To the point of fault, The Company Men is true-to-life. Had it sacrificed accuracy for entertainment, it could have been an unofficial sequel to Up in the Air, a great movie that dabbles in a similar subject. There’s no tragedy because we do not learn from The Company Men. John Wells reminds us of the Great Recession’s human element, but I don’t think I’m alone in preferring a distraction.